Serena Versus Carlos: Rush to Judgment Does Not Serve Well

We live in touchy times. Memes, instant judgment, misinformation, and demagogues dominate the public realm. The net result is that far too often, opinions become “reality.” Why bother to do research, when one can jump on a bandwagon of like-minded folks? 

Alas, liberals are sometimes as fact-challenged and ideologically driven as red-meat Trump supporters. Witness the rush to support Serena Williams in her dispute with umpire Carlos Ramos during the U.S. Open tennis tournament.  Serena ticks all the P.C. boxes: African American, female, recent mom, champion, success story….  None of these, however, make Ms. Williams the aggrieved party in her dispute with Ramos. Nor do they make her a victim of sexism and double standards. Were it not for the fact that Ramos is Latino and Williams’ opponent Haitian-Japanese, one wonders if the race card would have been played as well.

I admire Serena Williams tremendously. In my view, in the history of women’s tennis, only Martina Navratilova surpasses Serena. Williams is a role model for strong, independent women and is rightly hailed as such. Nor would I deny the social ubiquity of sexism or racism. I’ll also concede that mistakes, umpire pique, and preferential treatment occur in sporting events.

None of these apply to what happened to Serena Williams at the U.S. Open. If I might use a colloquialism, what actually occurred is that Serena lost her shit.  Let’s start with this: 37-year-old Ms. Williams was not going to win the match against 20-year-old Naomi Osaka. Osaka trounced Serena in the first set and was in control of the second. If you want to speculate, perhaps Serena’s frustration was that of many great champions: she stared across the net at herself at Ms. Osaka’s age. Remember how young Serena outran and overpowered her opponents? She’s actually a better and smarter player now, but it happens to us all; at some point you can’t outrun or outslug those in their physical bloom, nor can you summon the energy to cover your mistakes. Vets like Serena learn to conserve energy and use canny experience to outfox those who are stronger and faster. Not this time.

But let’s get to the heart of the matter. Among the memes floating around is a montage of male rage on tennis courts. The irony is that they are shown getting away with swears and maniacal destructions of equipment. Not so. Abuse of equipment is an automatic loss of a point. Worse still, the John McEnroe meltdown used in Internet memes to “prove” double standards is from the 1990 Australian Open. Truth: McEnroe was up two sets to one against an obscure opponent. Upon his third serious code violation, however, McEnroe was disqualified from the match and was done for the tournament.

McEnroe was one of the bad boys of tennis, a hold-your-nose class that included Dennis Ralston, Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, and Andre Agassi. Of them, McEnroe was probably the only one who sometimes played better angry. All of the careers mentioned were marred by penalties and suspensions; several involved serious struggles with alcoholism and depression. All were successful in their craft, but how many more matches would they have won had they been in better control of themselves? This is blatantly the case of Nastase—are you paying attention Nick Krygios?—who had talent to burn, but often squandered it at key moments when he turned boor and buffoon. And not even McEnroe or Connors won respect comparable to cucumber cool figures such as Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, Stan Smith, Pete Sampras, or Roger Federer.

Anyone who has ever picked up a racquet—including yours truly—knows that when you lose your shit, you usually lose the points that follow until you regain your composure. Serena wasn’t able to do that; at pivotal moments where she needed to be her best for even a prayer of forcing a third set, she invested her mental concentration in berating Ramos. At that juncture, Serena defeated herself.

Serena is a warrior on the court, but passion and anger differ. Let’s wipe out another few myths. First, Ramos is known as one of the strictest umpires in tennis—something a vet such as Ms. Williams certainly knows. It’s simply untrue that Ramos wouldn’t penalize men—ask Murray, Djokovic, and Krygios. He’s a stickler for the rules, which is why he was the first to officiate all four Grand Slam events. Second, this isn’t the first time Williams has gone supernova on the court, and she’s not been selective in venting her ire; until the Open her three worst abuses had been hurled at female umps. Third, her own coach admitted he was sending signals to Ms. Williams. Perhaps she never saw them, but it’s still against the rules. Maybe her coach deserves a lambasting, but not Ramos. Add it up—an automatic violation for racquet abuse, unauthorized coaching, and insulting the umpire. 1 + 1 + 1= 3, which is an automatic loss of a game.

Sure, we want to see the players, not the officials, but all sports have rules to dampen rogue behavior and kill-the-ump mentalities. In soccer, after two yellow caution cards, the next infraction yields a red card and you’re done for the match. In hockey, arguing with an official is a two-minute penalty that an official can double if the player doesn’t back off. In both sports, an official can (and often does) bypass all of this and directly assess a game misconduct penalty. Baseball goes a step further; a player that argues balls and strikes is automatically tossed from the game. Basketball coaches are assessed technical fouls if they cross the sidelines to protest a call. Two technicals and you’re gone. Ask yourself, what you would have done were you Carlos Ramos? How much crap would you have taken?

I agree with Serena Williams that apologies are in order: one from her to Ramos for losing her temper, and another to Naomi Osaka for stealing her thunder. This was her moment to shine and Williams hijacked the story. I don’t think Williams intended to do that; she just lost it. Sexism is real, but not in every case in which a man and a woman argue. Moreover, if we wish to live in a world in which facts matter, we should make sure we are not contributing to “fake news.” 

Rob Weir

1 comment:

Robert Niemi said...

Excellent post, Rob. You nailed it.